Wildlife, fishing and pets

Our birds are a bargain

Evening Grosbeaks waiting their tun on the feeder. Image ©GardenPhotos.com
In recent weeks, the birds seem to have been getting through a lot of seed. I know on one day they went through 2lb 6oz of black oil sunflower seed – not to mention the nijer seed and the suet – because they emptied both full feeders between dawn and dusk so it was easy to check. So when I got home with a 50lb bag not so long ago, I made a note of when we started using it. And it’s just run out.

These lovely finches - Evening Grosbeaks (above, click to enlarge), closely related to the British Hawfinch – were just two of the birds getting stuck in along with as many as twenty six pins siskins on view together. Anyway, that 50lb/22.7kg bag of seed lasted 25 days – that’s an average of exactly 2lb/0.9kg per day.

The bag cost $59.28/£37.76 from our local pet and feed store – that’s $2.37/£1.49 a day. I think that’s a bargain. There are virtually no flowers here in winter, but there are birds.

By the way, I posted more about bird seed last year, and about our wonderful guaranteed squirrel-proof bird feeders as well.

Best gift for this (or any) season

WoodpeckeronSquirrelBuster-370There’s no doubt about it, the Squirrel Buster Plus bird feeder is the best squirrel-proof bird feeder you can buy.

So many gardeners like to feed the birds, especially in winter – but so often the squirrels get to eat far more seed than the birds. Can’t have that. Not so with the Squirrel Buster Plus (left, click to enlarge).

I’ve tried every so-called squirrel-proof bird feeder I could find – this one really is squirrel-proof, and it's tough too. I discussed it in more detail back in the spring of 2009.

This is the one. And you can buy it both in North America, and in Britain & Ireland.


Rock in your (expensive) bird seed?

Sunflowers grown for their seed. Image ©GardenPhotos.com (all rights reserved)
Last winter I posted about the cost of sunflower seed, the black oil sunflower seed that is such a favorite with so many of our garden birds. In our friendly local Farm Plus farm supply store a 40lb bag cost $18.96 (47 cents per pound). Later, in the summer, they gave up selling it – they were so outraged by a huge price hike that they refused to stock it. So we bought the less oil-rich striped seed instead.

Yesterday, in a bird seed supply emergency (OK, bad planning), I ran out to our nearby small independent pet store for seed – their black oil sunflower seed cost $58.29 for a 50lb bag ($1.17 per pound). More than twice the price of less than a year ago!

But there’s another interesting point. Some time during the summer I picked up a bag of black oil sunflower seed somewhere else. I can’t remember what it cost, in this case that’s not the point – it was the ingredients. You’d think a bag of black oil sunflower seed would contain, well, black oil sunflower seed. Not so fast: Pennington Classic Black Oil Sunflower Seed contains: Sunflower Seed, Vitamin A supplement, Vitamin D-3 Supplement, Potassium iodide and Vegetable Oil.

Battling for bird seed. Image ©GardenPhotos.com (all rights reserved)Here’s my question: What’s the point of adding vitamins? These added vitamins only be on the outside of the seed coat, the part most birds drop on the ground! What’s more, the Pennington website says their black oil sunflower seed is “fruit flavored?! This is not bird care, it’s marketing.

But then I find, over on the Cole's Wild Bird Products webpage headed Bird Seed Myths, they make it very clear that wild birds don’t need supplements. They also reveal how, exactly, these supplements are added:
“…the most common way for companies to add “vitamins” to their products is to simply coat it with mineral oil and add crushed rock. (They add rock!!!) Current regulations allow a manufacturer to list the nutritional components of mineral oil (iron, zinc) and crushed rock (Vitamin A, calcium carbonate) separately, which can make the birdseed ingredients look more impressive than they really are… and of course the crushed rock adds weight to the final product.”

Amazing isn’t it. Crushed rock…

Now I’ve no idea if the good people at Pennington add rock to their sunflower seed or not but I suppose the answer to all these issues is to grow your own. Perhaps we would if we had a big sunny patch in which to grow it. But it’s pointless growing sunflowers under our trees; they’re called sunflowers for a reason, after all.

More depressing vole stuff (sorry)

Hosta eaten by vole. Image ©GardenPhotos.com (all rights reserved) Those voles are still at it. This picture shows the latest hosta chewed right through at the crown in one night. There are spaces all over what is usually a very crowded garden, now, though fortunately they don't seem to go for coleus or phlox or shrubs. Hostas are definitely the favorites.

Nicki the Vole Slayer must have caught more than thirty so far, when it started we never thought to keep a proper count. Duffy the Duffer (who's usually dozing when Nicki is out on patrol) has had two that we know of and perhaps a few more. Yesterday I watched Duffy stroll across the living room and simply step over a dead vole dispatched and left there by one or other of them. Never even looked at it. [Scroll down to see the two of them on the left.]

The guy, by the way, with the live trap (that would be me) has caught two voles, plus two chipmunks and two mice. So Duffy and I are about on a par – except I spend less time sleeping.

So what next? I'm worried about the winter when I'm afraid they'll spend months munching away under the snow. Poison has been mentioned, says the vegetarian. We're that desperate.

Our cheeky chipmunks

This year it's been a bumper year for voles, and a bumper year for the much less destructive chipmunks. It all seems to run in cycles: we've never before had a plague of voles, and even Nicki The Vole Slayer can't keep up with them. Chipmunks - some years, like this year, they're everywhere and some years we hardly see a one. But it was a treat to see this one on the deck rail, tasting a strawberry that had become a little too squidgy for human consumption.

And here's last year's chipmunk picture.

More slaughter in the garden

Begonias eaten by voles. Image  ©GardenPhotos.com
A few days ago I posted here about the mysterious pest munching our plants… This morning another disaster. These begonias eaten off at the ground. Every night there seems to be more including four hostas, now, and any number of other plants.

And now that our dense planting is getting thinner (with so many plants decapitated) we can see the holes – there are holes everywhere. And judging by what Nicki The Vole Slayer (left, scroll down) is bringing in every day, the culprits look like (I kid you not) Microtus pennsylvanicusthe meadow vole. Its even named after our state! And a state is exactly what we're in. Can't go on like this.

Nicki will just have to spend more time outside because Dozy Duffy, our other cat who roams inside the deer fence, is to put it mildly – utterly useless as a vole slayer.

OK, time to wake her from her slumbers and get her back to work. There are voles to slay, plants to protect. Where are you Nicki?

UPDATE (two days later): I finally gave in and put out a little trap, I just can't keep losing all these plants. This morning, after the first night - the trap has completely disappeared...

Catbirds outside our window

While I was at the Hampton Court Palace Flower Show, my wife judy sent over this guest post on the Gray Catbirds in our Pennsylvania garden. Thanks judy.

Gray Catbird (Dumetella carolinensis) on her nest. Image © GardenPhotos.com (all rights reserved)
We see Gray Catbirds (Dumetella carolinensis) here at the lake as regular summer residents, but this is the first time a pair built a nest outside our bedroom window. It’s comprised mostly of twigs, located about 6ft/1.8m off the ground, near the top of evergreen shrubbery but still hidden, and while only 4ft/1.2m from our window, absurdly hard to photograph because of the shrubs and the difficulty in getting our casement windows open wide enough. It has been wonderful, however, as a vantage point thru the nesting process.

Catbirds are so named because of the meowing sound they can make, but are actually songbirds and also good mimics of other birds and sounds, in the same category as mockingbirds. We’re pretty sure ours are also making the odd squeaking noise that sounds like someone’s reeling in a clothesline. The genus name, Dumetella, means “small thicket” - where they build their nests.

Our pair began building on June 8, and a few days later the female began incubating, but almost immediately crows forced her off the nest and took the single egg. We figured the catbirds would abandon, but less than 2 days later, on June 13, she began sitting again. Four more eggs had been laid, a beautiful, deep turquoise green-blue, much richer than an American robin’s egg color.

Gray Catbird (Dumetella carolinensis) with babies. Image © GardenPhotos.com (all rights reserved)
The female rarely left the nest during incubation (typically 12-14 days, during which it rained on her a lot, kind of like watching Dr. Seuss’s elephant Horton Hatches An Egg). The male sometimes hovered around. Between June 26-27th, three babies hatched, tiny, naked and vulnerable. Both parents, sometimes both at the nest at once, began feeding them insects – I saw one catch a huge moth in the air, bring it to the nest and shove it down a bright yellow-gold throat. The female stayed on the nest a lot the first few days, but after that, she spends perhaps 20% of her waking time there. Oddly, when she leaves, the male often sticks around and acts worried, tittering and flashing open his tail and wings in short bursts, but it’s like it would never occur to him to actually get on the nest until she gets back.

Catbirds are unusual in that they are versatile eaters; insects, berries, fruit, even coming to the suet feeder, and occasionally awkwardly eating the big sunflower seeds. What I see being given the nestlings, however, was almost entirely insect until about a week old, when Amelanchier berries became a good part of the mix. I’ve been putting out strawberries and grapes, which the parents eat. Even more than the birdfood, though, they love the birdbath; sometimes both parents are in there at once, splashing around in what seems to be great delight. They also stay out til quite late at night, well after all other birds have disappeared.

Catbird fledgling. Image © GardenPhotos.com (all rights reserved)
The babies grow incredibly fast; hour-by-hour they zoom in size. And today, June 7th, 10-11 days from hatching, I looked out the window early this morning to discover everyone was gone. The nestlings have all fledged, leaving this nest. Catbirds often have two broods a year, so we’ll see if they use this small thicket again, especially after having to endure human faces peering at them so often.

For a relatively shy species, they’ve been amazingly tolerant. I already miss them.

Beavers at the bottom of our garden

  Beaver,garden,Nympaea,water lily. Image ©GardenPhotos.com (All rights reserved)
Well, what can I say? Friends in England just can’t believe we have beavers at the bottom of our garden but here they are.

Actually, this is Mr. Beaver. judy took these quick snaps as she stood on our boat dock last evening.

Mr. and Mrs. Beaver have, I'm sorry to say, developed a taste for water lilies – that's what he's munching. Fortunately, we have plenty round the 80 acre lake. But I think the time has come to wrap wire round our waterside trees to prevent them being gnawed through.

Fishing seems to have fallen off recently – when they see the boat they come out and try to scare us off by splashing their tail on the water. It makes quite a noise and frightens the fish, of course.

We seem to have three beavers at the moment, but judging by the activity later in the evening - there could be more on the way. [Pictures withheld to protect a private moment.] 
Beaver,garden,Nympaea,water lily. Image ©GardenPhotos.com (All rights reserved)

Beaver,garden,Nympaea,water lily. Image ©GardenPhotos.com (All rights reserved)

Today's frog

Northern Leopard Frog,Rana pipiens. Image ©GardenPhotos.com (all rights reserved)
Today's intriguing wildlife visitor is the Northern Leopard Frog, Rana pipiens, spotted in a bird bath in the garden by judy (click to enlarge). They can reach over 4in/10cm in length and, apparently, have such large mouths that they can eat garter snakes, and even birds! That would be worth seeing... More usual fare includes flies, crickets, worms, and smaller frogs. Of course the frogs themselves are also at risk from raccoons and snakes.

Apart from the bird baths in the garden, this frog is many a long hop from the water but it's great to see one as it seems acid rain led to a decline from which they're only now recovering.

The Northern Leopard Frog is the State Amphibian of both Vermont and Minnesota! Only in America... Perhaps my home county in England should have a state amphibian as well? Come to think of it, there's probably more different amphibians in our garden here in Pennsylvania than in the whole of Northamptonshire (which has four).

Today's visitors

R Breasted Grosbeak,bird feeder Image: ©GardenPhotos.com (all rights reserved)
For the first time in a few years, we have a male Rose-Breasted Grosbeak with us, and here he is on the feeder crunching a sunflower seed. This is the impressively squirrel-proof feeder that I mentioned a while back.

He's been here for a couple of days now and today he seems to have been joined by two "wives" who spend more time tussling with each other than eating seeds.

This was after a black bear came around the middle of the day and took down the feeders and gobbled up all the seed. We didn't even hear the commotion, we were slaving away at our desks, so no pictures. But here's one from another time.

This has been a year of new or returning-after-a-break wildlife: a pair of beavers in the lake, banging their tails on the water just like in the wildlife films on TV, along with Lesser Scaup, Goldeneye, Hooded Mergansers, Common Mergansers and Loons plus Ospreys every day and quite a few immature and mature Bald Eagles. And a male Eastern Towhee which we've never had before. And more chipmunks than for a few years... And we spotted the first bee yesterday. No wonder the hellebores don't set much seed - no early bees.

It's a wild life out here by the lake in the woods...

UPDATE: A week later, we now have four male and two female Rose-Breasted Grosbeaks. Plus, today for the first time ever, a Black-throated Blue Warbler.